Last updated: November 07. 2013 10:57PM - 1029 Views
By - tjoyce@civitasmedia.com

Brian Elam, right, of the N.C. Forest Service in Surry County discusses the implications of selling timber in Mount Airy's Westwood Industrial Park Thursday to Commissioner Shirley Brinkley and other members of the city council.
Brian Elam, right, of the N.C. Forest Service in Surry County discusses the implications of selling timber in Mount Airy's Westwood Industrial Park Thursday to Commissioner Shirley Brinkley and other members of the city council.
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The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners delayed action Thursday afternoon on a proposal to sell timber at Westwood Industrial Park for a potential $300,000 and use the proceeds for a shell building there to attract a new company.

Although board members seem willing to harvest trees that are losing value as time passes due to age, disease and insects, doing so presents a set of complications involving more than hitting the woods with a saw and yelling “timber!”

That was evident after a nearly one-hour question-and-answer session with a local expert, Brian Elam of the N.C. Forest Service in Surry County.

As pointed out Thursday, decisions must be made as to whether an entire 132-acre area being eyed should be logged all at once, or done in segments over time. And if so, which of separate city-owned sites should be targeted first. Then there are concerns about possible runoff and erosion from timbering operations, along with stream pollution.

And how will be the public, including nearby residents who would be directly impacted, react to the aesthetic and other traumas posed to the now-pristine woodlands?

“I’m not going to stand up here and tell you that harvesting timber is a pretty sight,” the forestry representative said of the resulting appearance of the land.

“It’s going to look drastically different.”

Council Uncertain

Board members, including Dean Brown and Scott Graham, said Thursday they favor a cautious approach of selling off the timber in small sections, or “management blocks” of 50 acres or less each — possibly handled by multiple loggers.

“That seems more practical than just jumping in,” Brown said. “I like the 50-acre possibility.” Then if the desired outcome doesn’t materialize for the municipality, the timbering operation can be halted, the commissioner said.

“There’s multiple ways you could attack this issue,” Elam said in agreement.

But Commissioner Jon Cawley, who has been the board’s chief advocate for selling the trees and possibly using the money to construct a shell building, supported a broader approach Thursday.

Referring to previous comments by the forestry representative that logging the entire area would require about a two-year timetable, Cawley complained that doing so in small portions could stretch the process to six or eight years.

“We’re always speaking of bringing jobs to town,” said Cawley, who added that this is tough for office-holders to do, other than increasing the governmental payroll. “But what we can do is create opportunity.”

Westwood Industrial Park has limited use for new tenants in its present state, Cawley said of the heavily forested area that could be more appealing if cleared — and contained a shell building.

“So in my opinion, we’ve said, ‘stay away from Westwood Industrial Park,’” he said of the message sent to economic-development prospects. “That’s been the body language.”

As an alternative to logging the entire area, Cawley suggested focusing on a 75-acre tract. That would include part of a 102-acre parcel where Elam said the timber is “well past prime” and should have been cut 25 to 30 years ago and is recommended for clear-cutting now.

This would involve leaving the outside borders untouched and “gutting the middle,” Cawley explained.

Elam said a separate 30-acre area to the south of the 102 acres is much more marketable — but will present a public-relations dilemma if logged.

“You’ve got homes on both sides of the property,” he said of the disruption that would be caused. “The neighbors are going to tell you pretty quickly that you’re messing up their back yards.”

Based on Elam’s presentation, buffers could be left, with some of the bare areas at the park allowed to regrow naturally while seed trees would be planted in others at a cost of about $85 per acre.

There would be little other expense coming off the top of the $300,000 Mount Airy could hope to gain by selling all the timber, which Elam said includes desired types such as “pretty” poplars, oaks and pines. But the trees are losing value as time goes on, he said.

Whoever does the logging would be responsible for stream protection, which Elam said could be part of the contract.

Shell Building

There are also uncertainties surrounding the proposed shell building, including what it would cost.

Martin Collins could not put a price tag on that during Thursday’s meeting, saying there are many variables, such as different thicknesses of floors required depending on the company involved.

But Collins said that constructing shell buildings to better attract industries has been successful in the Martinsville-Henry County area in Virginia over the past 10 years.

Mount Airy also has had success with that concept, Martin said, which included erecting a shell structure in Piedmont Triad West Corporate Park around 2002 that got a lot of “looks.”

It became the home of a Gerard’s Bakery operation and most recently was acquired by Willow Tex.

Many of the existing industrial buildings around town which are vacant don’t have qualities sought by modern industries, officials say.

At the urging of Commissioner Graham, the board agreed Thursday to delay action on the timbering plan to its first meeting in December to allow more information to be obtained on the city’s options.

Cawley said that time also should be used to explore the possibility of state grants for the shell building.

Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or tjoyce@civitasmedia.com.

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